Visionary Lessons From Elon Musk

Red lighting fills the room, casting a bright neon hue on the buzzing crowd. As electronic music thumps loudly and white lasers cascade from the walls, the scene looks more like a rave than what it is: a massive gathering of reporters and tech geeks, all hyped for a moment they’ve been looking forward to, in some cases, for years.

Soon the music stops and the lasers disappear. The din of the crowd quiets. The giant screen on stage turns purple and an animated woman appears on one side, gesturing with both animated hands as she talks. 

“The skies are polluted. The world is addicted to oil,” she says in a digitized British accent. “But we’re here to offer a solution.”

The animation points to the center of the stage and, as she says, “I now present to you my creator,” there are howls in the audience.

This is the scene on Nov. 21, 2019, at the Tesla Design Studio in Hawthorne, California, just outside Los Angeles. There are hundreds of people in the room and tens of thousands streaming the event live around the world. Today, Elon Musk, the billionaire CEO of Tesla, is unveiling to the public something he’s been talking about for nearly a decade, a new vehicle he calls “Cybertruck.”

Musk walks on stage dressed like a character from Blade Runner: black boots, dark pants, a dark shirt, and a black leather jacket. Dozens of cellphones go up and start recording. Musk stands there, arms spread wide, as the cheers and whistles last for a full 25 seconds. Someone on the right side of the room screams “I love you!”

A series of photos flash across the screen behind him, one old pickup truck after another. Musk points out that the basic concept of a pickup truck hasn’t changed much over the last century. Then there’s a photo of new trucks from Dodge, Ford, and Chevy, each with the branding removed. They are basically indistinguishable.

“It’s hard to tell which is which,” Musk says in his trademark emotionless staccato. “We need something different. We need sustainable energy now.”

Then: “I present to you, the Cybertruck.” 

For Musk, the 18 months leading up to this moment have been filled with turmoil and controversy. He’s probably the most famous engineer in the world, Silicon Valley’s heir to Steve Jobs, the real-life Tony Stark from Iron Man. But in the last few years, Musk—who turns 50 next summer—was sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission after he tweeted that he had the funding to take Tesla private at $420 a share. Then he was sued by the British diver he’d called a “pedo guy” during the rescue of a young soccer team stuck in an underwater cave in Thailand. Then one of his other companies, SpaceX, was investigated by NASA after Musk smoked pot on Joe Rogan’s podcast. Musk also feuded publicly with short-sellers betting on Tesla to fail and struggled with media coverage that increasingly painted him as erratic and immature. There were questions about whether he might even be ousted from the Tesla board. And, if all that weren’t stressful enough, he also started a new relationship, with the Canadian musician known as Grimes.

On this stage, though, Musk has the eyes and ears of the entire Valley and every car company on the planet. This is a chance for Musk to stun the world, grasp control of the narrative, and once again prove his doubters wrong. The top three selling vehicles in America are all gas-guzzling, carbon-spewing pickup trucks. If the introduction of the Cybertruck goes well, if he can get enough Americans interested in an electric-powered pickup, this moment could change the world.

Bright white lights flash from every part of the room. A deep bass thumps. Dozens of fireballs shoot into the air as the truck rolls onto the stage. In the room there’s more cheering. But online, snide comments about the vehicle’s angular, futuristic appearance commence almost immediately. The cold-rolled stainless steel used to make the body panels—the same material SpaceX uses for its Starship rockets—can only be bent along straight lines, giving the truck a slight origami look.

“It doesn’t look like anything else,” Musk says with a grin.

To demonstrate the strength and durability of the truck’s steel body, Musk invites Tesla designer Franz von Holzhausen on stage with a sledgehammer. First Holzhausen, also dressed in all black, whacks the door of a regular American truck and leaves a significant dent. Then he hits the Cybertruck twice, seemingly even harder, but there’s no dent. 

Then Musk explains that the windows are made of “transparent metal glass.” He invites Holzhausen to try to break the windows by throwing a small metal ball, about the size of a cue ball. 

“You sure?” Holzhausen asks.

“Yeah!” Musk assures him.

The designer winds up like a pitcher and throws the ball at the driver’s window, and… the window splinters. Tiny shards sprinkle off. The crowd collectively gasps. 

They try the same demonstration on another window: wind up, throw, and… again the window splinters, leaving two enormous white imprints in the dark glass. 

Musk is clearly unnerved. He stares for a few seconds at the crushed glass. His arms are crossed. This is clearly not the way the demonstration was supposed to go, and now his entire thought process has been disrupted.

“Alright,” he says, trying to get back on track, despite the broken glass a few feet behind him on the stage. “Ah, let’s see. So, yeah.”

FREDERIC J. BROWN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Love him or hate him—and there are a lot of people who feel passionately each way—his entire life has been a series of lessons. In the months following the unveiling, this moment, too, will prove to be yet another lesson from the career of Elon Musk.

THERE ARE PROBLEMS TO SOLVE  
(NOT JUST PROFITS TO MAKE)

By now, Musk’s backstory is entrepreneurial lore: Born in South Africa, designed and sold a videogame at age 12, moved to Canada for college, then to America, then dropped out of Stanford two days into graduate school. His first company sold for more than $300 million, his second company—what would become PayPal—sold for over $1.5 billion, earning Musk personally more than $150 million. Then he started SpaceX, the first successful private space travel company, and helped create Tesla. 

Often lost in this story, though, is the fact that while Musk has built four billion-dollar businesses, money was never his driving motivation. In fact, on several occasions, he invested nearly all of his fortune in large-scale bets on himself, on his own ability to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. With his first company, Zip2, Musk and his brother sought to provide local businesses with an early internet presence. Then they aimed to simplify online financial transactions. With Tesla—and also SolarCity, the solar-panel company he started with his cousins—the goal is to help both generate and consume renewable energy. He’s said that he created SpaceX in an effort to eventually make humanity a multi-planet species and he hopes to have a colony of thousands on Mars by as early as 2040.

But even in his lesser known endeavors, the initial impulse has been the desire to solve large-scale problems. In 2013, Musk showed the world his plan for a “Hyperloop,” a high-speed transit system involving massive de-pressurized tubes, noting that he’d like people to be able to get between San Francisco and Los Angeles—roughly 350 miles—in about 35 minutes. A few years later, Musk announced his desire to change the way tunneling is done.

It was early one morning in 2016. Musk was apparently stuck in rush-hour gridlock when he sent a series of tweets: “Traffic is driving me nuts. Am going to build a tunnel boring machine and just start digging…” he posted. “I am actually going to do this. It shall be called ‘The Boring Company.’” 

At first, it sounded like an off-handed joke. But then a month later, he tweeted again: “Exciting progress on the tunnel front. Plan to start digging in a month or so.” Replies asked him if he was serious—and Musk said he was.

While this was happening, Musk and SpaceX were looking to solve what they viewed as yet another problem. Starting in 2015 the company started working on something they called Starlink, a proposed constellation of satellites that would provide world-wide high-speed satellite internet access. This would provide low-cost broadband capabilities to underserved communities around the planet. The plan involved launching thousands of satellites into orbit at a reported cost of $10 billion. Over and over, the theme of his work is an attempt to find unmet needs—and meet them.

Some of the problems he’s trying to solve are existential. Around this same time, Musk also created OpenAI, a nonprofit research company dedicated to mitigating potential dangers from artificial intelligence—something he sees as a potentially deadly risk to our species. The next year he founded Neuralink, a startup focused on creating implantable devices that could merge the human brain with software in an effort to keep pace with artificial intelligence and help avoid the extinction of our species. 

IMPOSSIBLE IS AN OPINION

The original idea behind SpaceX was that private enterprise could do better than America’s military-industrial complex and eventually re-energize space travel. Because so many other people scoffed at his ambition, Musk was, for years, the company’s sole investor. Meaning, even after creating two massively profitable companies, he couldn’t convince anyone else of his vision.

He had never worked in the field of aerospace engineering, but that didn’t deter him. After several trips to Russia to price rockets, Musk decided the most efficient way to get a vehicle into orbit would be for the company to build it using raw materials, inventing new parts and procedures as they went along. This helped him streamline the entire process.

Years before SpaceX was even close to launching its first rocket, Musk turned his attention to yet another seemingly unsolvable problem: weaning humanity from fossil fuels. In 2004, Musk became an early investor and chairman of the board of Tesla Motors (now Tesla Inc.). Electric cars had been tried a number of times, for decades, with no success stories. But Musk believed it could be done. 

The goal was to first build a limited number of luxury sport cars that could outperform the best vehicles on the road without burning gas. Step 2 was to make a medium-priced electric car at a higher volume. Then, the plan was to build a larger number of lower-priced electric cars and trucks.

©ART STREIBER / AUGUST IMAGE

All of his companies were successful within the first few years. In 2006, SpaceX secured funding from NASA worth nearly $300 million. Tesla started manufacturing its Roadster in 2008, a sleek two-door car that could go from 0 to 60 in under four seconds on an electric battery that could drive more than 200 miles before it needed charging. Arnold Schwarzenegger, George Clooney and Leonardo DiCaprio were among the first high-profile purchasers. Likewise, SolarCity quickly became the second largest installer of solar panels in the country.

In February 2017, just two months after his initial “Boring Company” tweets, the mayor of Los Angeles was scheduled to visit SpaceX offices in Hawthorne. Two days before the visit, Musk asked some of his engineers what it would take to start digging a hole in the company’s parking lot—where they wouldn’t require any permits. He was told it would take weeks to clear the lot and commence digging.

Musk reportedly replied: “Let’s get started today and see what’s the biggest hole we can dig between now and Sunday afternoon.”

Within a few hours, the cars were moved and a hole was begun. By the time of the mayor’s visit, after digging 24 hours a day, the hole was 30-feet wide, 50-feet long, and 15-feet deep. The next year, the Boring Company split off from SpaceX. What appeared to start as a wry joke was now an independent business, with plans to build tunnels in several American cities. In 2019, the Boring Company won a $48 million contract with the city of Las Vegas for a project to shuttle people beneath the Las Vegas Convention Center.

A few days after the parking-lot hole endeavor, SpaceX also launched its first test-flight Starlink satellites. In 2019, the company launched more than 60 satellites into orbit. As of this April, there were more than 350 Starlink satellites operational.

Of course, Musk wasn’t the first person with the idea for private-industry rockets, or a profitable electric car company, or a new way to tunnel through Earth. But those ideas never had a driving, innovative force like this, able to convince so many people of what could be possible. 

He’s also not done.

DON’T PANIC 

One of the other science fiction books Musk loved as a kid was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Early on in the novel, readers learn one of the fundamental rules of intergalactic travel: DON’T PANIC! The phrase often appears on the book’s cover. Musk has said that this is the most important rule he’s taught his own kids. (Arthur C. Clarke said it’s the best advice ever given to humanity.)

This approach has served Musk well professionally, too, because there has been a lot of turbulence. Initially, Tesla planned to use a number of different parts suppliers, but eventually realized the company needed to build nearly every part of the cars—and the machines that make those parts—in-house. The rollout of the first Roadsters was already going slower than promised when the recession of 2008 hit. Musk had to more than double his initial investment and the company asked the U.S. government for a loan. Around the same time, Musk was going through his first divorce.

SpaceX has had its struggles, too. The company’s first three rocket launches all ended in explosions before entering orbit. Not only did it appear private space travel might be a doomed venture, Musk’s initial $100 million investment was also mostly gone. But within days of the third explosion, he announced to the world that he knew what went wrong and had secured funding for a fourth launch. Because Musk consistently applies a software developer’s approach to business—moving quickly, disregarding established approaches to problems, changing directions swiftly—SpaceX was able to try again in a matter of months.

Not long after the fourth launch was successful, SpaceX became the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. There were more successful launches, with increasingly larger capacities. Within a few years, the company got a NASA contract worth $1.6 billion. Musk claims the company is profitable. He’s also said he hopes to establish a colony of 80,000 people on Mars by 2040.

DAVE BEDROSIAN / FUTURE-IMAGE / ZUMA PRESS

Tesla bounced back, too. At one point, in a 2012 presidential debate, Mitt Romney cited Tesla as an example of bad investments made by the Obama administration. But that same year, the company released the Model S, a stylish sedan that can go from 0 to 60 in under three seconds powered by a battery that can last for nearly 400 miles—and also comes with an auto-pilot, self-driving feature. Tesla not only repaid its government loan nine years early, the American taxpayers made a profit of around $20 million on the arrangement. At various points over the last year, Tesla has been worth more, in terms of market capital, than both General Motors and Ford combined.

In 2018, when SpaceX tested its Falcon Heavy rocket—the most powerful rocket ever launched—the dummy payload carried into space included Musk’s own midnight cherry Roadster. In the glovebox was a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Photos of the car circling the globe showed a sign on the dashboard. It read “DON’T PANIC!”

SUCCESS REQUIRES SACRIFICE

Musk’s intense focus is legendary. From the tales of him working 120 hours a week to the way he’s liable to drift away mid-conversation, lost in a world of his own thoughts. That doesn’t always make for a great companion or co-worker. But it’s a part of the sacrifice he’s made in choosing to attack some of the planet’s most important problems.

“Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” he once said.

He’s worth an estimated $20 billion, but he seems eternally restless. He’s said that his mind races uncontrollably, sometimes unbearably. And no matter his successes, he’s always battling someone or something: short sellers rooting for his demise, the SEC (after his problematic going-private tweet, he and Tesla were fined $20 million each), not-yet-created machines that might slaughter us all mercilessly.

In brief glimpses over the years, he’s shown the world that he’s not a robot or an alien. In fact, his emotions can be as intense as his drive for innovation. He and his first wife, Justine Wilson, share custody of their five boys. (Their first son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome at 10 weeks old.) In May, he and Grimes welcomed another baby boy. Musk is, by most accounts, an attentive father, but Wilson has also written that theirs was an “unhealthy” marriage. Musk has been divorced three times. He reportedly doesn’t speak to his father. And he’s spoken publicly about his deep loneliness.

“It’s not like I don’t know what that feels like,” he told Rolling Stone in 2017. “Being in a big, empty house, and the footsteps echoing through the hallway, no one there and no one on the pillow next to you.”

He expects his employees to sacrifice, too. To meet some of Musk’s ambitious deadlines, a lot of other engineers, machinists, designers, and developers worked 10 hours a day, seven days a week. 

On an episode of 60 Minutes Australia about Tesla building the world’s largest lithium-ion battery in South Australia, Musk said, almost off-handedly, that fixing that country’s devastating energy crisis would be “easy.” When told that the skyrocketing cost of energy was making electricity something of a luxury item, Musk was incredulous.

“Really?” he asked back.

He was told that there were Australians wondering daily if they could turn on their lights, wondering if they should go without food.

“I did not expect that,” Musk said. He turned his head, looked off for a moment, and swallowed hard. Then he looked back at the reporter and nodded confidently. 

“We’ll work harder,” he said.

A POWERFUL VISION CAN MAKE UP FOR SOME SMALL MISTAKES

For the rest of the Cybertruck unveiling presentation, Musk seems a little distracted by the broken windows. He explains that in tests, they threw everything, including a literal kitchen sink, at the glass and it never broke.

“The reason it broke now, I don’t know why,” he confesses to the audience. “We’ll fix it in post.” (A few days later, Tesla explained that one of the sledgehammer hits broke the edge of the glass and weakened the integrity of the window.)

Musk stumbles through, explaining some of the other features on the new truck: the adaptive air suspension, the giant truck bed, the incredible speed and towing capabilities. It has faster acceleration than a Porsche 911 and can destroy a Ford F-150 in a tug-of-war. He explains that the price will start under $40,000, and the crowd in the room roars again.

On Twitter and in the comment sections of livestreams of the event on YouTube, people are already speculating about how far Tesla’s stock will tumble. Within minutes, there are memes joking about the broken windows. Critics calling the body “hideous.” Some Redditors say it’s all a gag.

Musk almost walks offstage before someone shouts a reminder: There’s something else.

“Oh yeah,” he says. “We also made an ATV.”

A man in a helmet rides a sleek, black four-wheeler onto the stage. He opens the tailgate and rides the ATV right up into the bed of the truck. Some models of the truck, Musk explains, will come with a four-wheeler, too.

At the end of the presentation, Musk tells the crowd that the company will be offering rides in the Cybertruck for the rest of the night. Like the host of a massive party, he encourages everyone to stick around, to have a good time. Then, just before he walks off, he pauses for a second or two, taking in the moment.

The company’s stock will indeed drop about 6 percent over the next day. But people trust Musk’s vision. They trust his ability to see it through. Less than a week later, Tesla will announce that it’s received more than 250,000 pre-orders for the Cybertruck, representing billions of dollars of future revenue. Within a few weeks, the company’s stock will reach a new high, nearly quadruple what it had been during just a few months before the Cybertruck reveal. His girlfriend, Grimes, will also announce that she’s pregnant with Musk’s child.

Designing the future isn’t easy. There will always be setbacks in any innovative process. Life is full of embarrassing moments, unexpected broken glass, critics happy to see you struggle. Plenty of people would shrivel up or slink away.

But that’s not Elon Musk. Instead, he opens his arms and bows to the audience. Then he walks offstage with a purposeful stride, ready to fix a new problem.

Read next: How to Tell a Joke Like Elon Musk


This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of SUCCESS magazine.
Main photo by ©Martin Schoeller / August Image

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Michael J. Mooney is a journalist who writes for D Magazine, GQ, ESPN: The Magazine, Outside, SUCCESS and Popular Mechanics. He is co-director of the annual Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. His stories have appeared in multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Crime Reporting. He lives in Dallas with his fiancée, Tara, and their retired racing greyhound.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar Tamuno on June 27, 2020 at 3:33 am

    Incredible and extra ordinary. The drive to succeed must be motivated by forces beyond comprehension. Keep it up until you reach fulfillment.

  2. Avatar LAXMIDHAR N BHOLA on June 27, 2020 at 6:14 am

    Elon Musk is different. He provides enough definition ‘what makes an entrepreneur stand out in the crowd’.
    Truly, today entrepreneurship has become a subject in the curriculum across the globe. But no Government agencies try to identify entrepreneurs quickly at the early stage to provide support, this is a pathetic scenario across the globe. Some commercialize to convert everyone as entrepreneurs and some make money out of core intensity. But secrecy lies with entrepreneurs himself, its a completely different mindset that ‘makes the entrepreneur contain all characters that average curriculum are unable to identify’!

    So, either you take Bill Gates or Richard Branson, or Elon Musk all are different from within, not by an inclination towards a curriculum-based synthesis.

    More surprises are expected from Elon Musk. He has a long journey to create stopovers by himself.

    Thank God ‘that he has bestowed extraordinary imagination power to Mr Elon Musk’ which is very difficult to conceive.

    L N Bhola

  3. Avatar Fred on June 27, 2020 at 6:48 am

    A wonderful story. Kept me glued to the screen. Very stimulating.

  4. Avatar Rabindra on June 29, 2020 at 10:20 pm

    The picture above where he is standing all smug along side the space capsule: He is acting as if he was the sole guy responsible for the creation of that machine. I don’t think Elon Musk knows a tinkling wad about aerospace engineering or space science. Elon Musk is only a visionary and an investor. Without all the hundreds of engineers and programmars working behind the curtain, he and his vision would be dust in the air yet Elon Musk is the only one in his company who is soaking up all the praise and the accolades. Look at him attend those high society fashion parties along side his hollywood friends acting all smug. And those engineers who are the real creators are no where to be seen. After all, it is Capitalism.

    • Avatar Brandon B on July 10, 2020 at 6:23 pm

      Well, he funded it, so…
      You try that.

  5. Avatar Jen Bee on July 1, 2020 at 6:03 am

    I’m a huge Elon fan however it’s probably better journalism if you do a bit of fact checking prior to publishing in the future. Elon has experienced failures (like all visionaries, and I love that he keeps trying) notably Hyperloop and The Boring Company, and the environmental issues for the Tesla Batteries. Those things said, his vast efforts are applaudable.

  6. Avatar Cabiojinia on July 9, 2020 at 9:36 am

    Quite an interesting and well written article I must say. I’ll definitely be coming back to it often because it’s inspiring to read.
    Of course, Elon Musk doesn’t possess all the technical abilities that the engineers, programmers and the rest have. But a leader isn’t necessarily required to have all of those. There are other skills required, among which VISION is definitely topmost. And I think he has that.
    I wish him all the success and hope to build something extraordinary in my lifetime as well.

  7. Avatar Nita Kapadia on July 9, 2020 at 8:22 pm

    In one of the comments above, Rabindra observes and dismisses Elon Musk’s hyperbolic praise by describing him as a mere investor and visionary.
    I would like to refute that.In my learning of humans, humans are the only species endowed with the ability to imagine, together with the ability to manifest physically that, they envision.
    I do not think that this human superpower can be discounted.
    How many of us go beyond daydreaming? We cannot envision the first step itself.
    Besides, who stopped all his employees from investing in their own vision executing it? Men like Elon Musk are born once in a lifetime.

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